The birthday party

She could feel Katie hovering around, pretending to be doing something. Making out that she hadn’t noticed the box, the gold ribbons, the silver paper, her secret activity in the corner of the room.

Until curiosity and impatience won out as usual.

“Is that for me?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I see it?”

“No! It’s a surprise.”

“Did you make it yourself?”

“You know I did. Now go away.”

Laurie didn’t look up. She just carried on fiddling with the ribbon, trying to get the bow to look nice.

Her mother had shown her how to do it so many times now, but still, whenever she tried, and this was now her fifth attempt, the ribbon would either split and tear, or tighten up into an ugly knot.

So she bit her lip and frowned, determined to get it right this time.

She was almost out of ribbon and Katie’s snooping had made her lose her concentration again.

The same thing had happened last year, the first year Laurie had decided to make her sister a birthday present.

Somehow Katie had picked up on her secrecy and excitement and had pestered her for days about what was going on. What surprise was in store.

So much so that in the end she’d had to finish the gift at school, after hours, just to be sure that Katie didn’t discover the carefully crafted gift.

A small box made of papier mache, that she had painted yellow and varnished until it glistened like gold.

She had imagined that Katie would use it for jewellery and it was only weeks later that she realised Katie didn’t have any, and that the box was useless.

“It’s okay. I use it to keep sweets in.” Katie explained “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No” she lied.

But she had lined the box with blue satin from an old torn blouse of their mother’s and had been so pleased with the final results.

The rich sheen of the lining had given the box a sumptuous feel, had turned it from some ordinary thing into something unusual, something that really did look like a jewellery box.

So the thought of those sweets had disappointed her.

That was when she had decided that this year, she would make jewellery for the box. A necklace of ruby red glass beads, and a bracelet of yellow glass, cut like tiny stars, that had taken her weeks to thread.

Her mother had helped her fix the clasps and when they were finished, she’d tried them on just to be sure they’d fit.

In the mirror she’d twisted the glass around to catch the light, and when the beads had glared back at her, she’d smiled and nodded her head.

Yes, this was what was supposed to be in the box.

As she finished tying the bow, she thought of tomorrow. About the birthday party. About how it made her feel.

This would be their first party, and the thought of it, made her stomach jump, the way it did sometimes when she was too happy about something, or too scared.

She wasn’t sure exactly if it was fear or excitement that made her stomach flutter. All she knew was that it made her shake.

Her new friends from school were coming and there was a part of her that wondered if they’d come. That worried perhaps that they wouldn’t enjoy it as much with Katie there.

She never talked about Katie at school.

Sometimes a teacher would talk to her about it, but most of the time, no-one said anything. It was as if Katie wasn’t there, as if she didn’t exist, had never existed.

And it was strange, this silence, because she knew that all anyone really wanted to talk to her about was this.

All they wanted to hear was how she felt about it all. How she felt about Katie. But they seemed scared for some reason to bring it up. Afraid perhaps that it would upset her, or make her angry, or worse, confuse her. So they said nothing and kept this strained silence instead.

And in the end, it was okay. Because, really, what was there to tell?

***
They’d taken the decision from the beginning. As soon as it happened, they had both agreed.

“We won’t keep this from her.”

And so Katie had grown up with them. Had been there all the while. This sister, this daughter that none of them had.

Little peculiarities had formed around the non-existent child. Daily habits that over time had become norms, become family secrets, become things they shared among themselves.

When Laurie was still a toddler, she would greet her missing sister each morning, starting the day with a loud cheery hello which soon faded to hushed whispered conversations as to what they should wear, what they should eat, what they should do together that day.

At every meal, a place was set for Katie, the food neatly arranged and approved by Laurie.

“Katie doesn’t like peas.”

“Katie wants the red cup.”

“Katie says I can have her cake cos she’s full now.”

And they tolerated it, because what else could they do? It was their making, all of this.

A mistake born of good intentions. Of pain and misguided love.

A bad decision, that had evolved into something disturbing and macabre.

The grief and confusion had been too strong. Had taken them over and rendered them useless, so that they hadn’t known what it was they were supposed to do.

Two daughters. One dead, one living. Do you celebrate or mourn?

They didn’t know. And now the house was filled with this ghost, this child that had never lived but which none of them could forget. An invisible, lively little creature that now had a history and a life of her own.

She’d asked him one morning, “Do you think we were wrong?” and he’d looked at her and nodded, but couldn’t offer anything else.

At night she’d hear him sigh. Feel his restlessness, his twists and turns, his worry. Catch him watching Laurie as she played, checking to see if she was playing alone. Listening to hear if she was talking to that empty space beside her.

It made her every word, her every laugh, every sound, suspicious. Turned every thought or action into a thing to be examined.

She’d told him to let it go, not to dwell on it or analyse it too much.

“She’ll understand soon enough and it’ll stop. ”

“You think so?”

And she’d lied, “Yeah. She’s just too small now is all.”

“But that’s our fault, isn’t it? I mean, we should have forgotten Katie. That’s what we should have done, isn’t it?”

But she couldn’t answer.

Because she couldn’t imagine Laurie without Katie, without this missing piece of her, of them, that was still there somehow.

She wanted both her daughters. Wanted them here beside her. Wanted that place at the table to be filled.

It was something that grew with the years. A thing that never subsided. A loss she just kept filling.

So that now all they had now was eight years of grieving. Eight years of hanging on to something that had never been. And she wanted to let go sometimes. Wanted to just let it be. Wanted to forget.

But how?

The birthday ritual had grown into something that left her feeling nothing. Something she dreaded.

Last year they’d gone with gifts and flowers and she had watched as Laurie placed her gift on the ground. Listened as she’d explained what it was. How she’d described the yellow box. Boasted about the lining of blue satin she’d glued to the inside.

And as they’d walked away she’d looked up at them both.

“Do you think she liked it? Do you think it was a real surprise?”

As if the grave meant nothing still, as if it held no meaning to her, this idea that Katie wasn’t with them.

Katie was the sister that hadn’t made it, but what that meant, here, now, in all these days that had passed since, they weren’t sure anymore.

That was the night that he had cried out loud. Had sobbed and shook in something that seemed closer to a rage.

“She dies for us every year, Jane. It’s got to stop. We have to make it stop.”

And he was right. But how?

That was the question she always asked herself.

How could they take Katie from her?

***

They drove in silence to the cemetery. Laurie playing with the ribbon she had taken so much trouble with.

Her mother watching her.

“Watch you don’t tear it eh?”

But she didn’t reply.

She was too worried. There seemed to be too many things to think about. Not just the present or whether Katie would like it. But other things.

Like the party. Like the other kids from school that would be coming. They didn’t know about Katie. Would have no presents for her.

The box on her lap together with the doll from her parents would be the only gifts.

It made her feel sad..

She’d tried to imagine how Katie was going to feel when she saw all those other kids arrive. When she saw all those presents and realised that none of them were for her.

When she looked around the room at the cake and the balloons and saw that none of it was for her. That the singing and the cheers were just for Laurie, even though it was her birthday too.

So that morning they’d spoken, just as they always did, about the day ahead. The birthday day.

And when Katie had asked what it was they should do that day, she’d realised she had to explain it.

“I’m having a party. A birthday party.”

Katie stayed silent for a few seconds, then mumbled “Oh.”

“I have friends. From school. They’re coming to the house.”

“And it’s for you? This party. It’s just for you?”

“Yeah. Yeah it is.”

“But you’ll still come and see me? Bring me my present?”

“Yeah.”

And so they stand, just as she promised they would, gathered around the little space made for Katie.

“Maybe we should sing?”

She looks up at her father and can see he feels awkward with the idea and is only suggesting it, because it’s what they always do.

So when she says no, he catches his breath, and she’s not sure if he’s relieved or surprised.

Instead she fixes her gaze at the ground and at the faded remnants of the things they laid there last year.

“The box is ruined.”

She points at the mulched remains of last years gift, which has rotted away to almost nothing on the soil and her father picks it up, along with the other disintegrating things, the candleholders, a teddy bear, a silk sunflower, and throws them into a plastic bag.

“We’ll give her the new things then, shall we?”

Her mother is already bending over the grass, brushing away old leaves and dirt, making space for the new things they have brought, for this, their new year.

But the jewellery seems so pointless now with no box to put them in and she doesn’t know what to do with it.

“There’s no box for them.”

Her mother seems confused at first, then remembers the jewellery she has made for Katie.

“Oh” is all she can manage to say.

“I’m sure Katie won’t mind, really.”

Her father always tries to soften things, she realises. Always tries to make things seem better than they really are and not wanting to disappoint him she simply shakes her head and agrees.

“Yeah, she’ll like it.”

But on the way back home she thinks about that box. About the way it looked, all rotted and black and damp and ruined, and for the first time, understands that Katie will never be with her.

In the car, her father tries to make amends.

“We can sing to her at the party. That’d be nicer anyway.”

And she looks at him and squeezes his hand.

“Yeah.”

But they never do.

Back home, Laurie clears away the place made for Katie and when they look at her and ask her what she’s doing, at first she doesn’t know what to say and they all stand there for a moment, looking at the empty space at the table, slightly bewildered, before Laurie has the courage to say anything.

“I don’t think my friends from school would understand.”

“Understand what?” and her father ‘s question seems more like a desire than anything else, as if he is hoping she will tell him what it is she knows he wants to hear.

“I don’t think they’d understand why Katie has a place.”

She stops, trying to sense if she should go further, if she should say what she thinks.

“Maybe they would” and she sees her father’s jaw tense as her mother says this.

“No, no mum they won’t. Dead people don’t have birthday parties, do they?”

And her mother’s face turns pale at this, her hand reaches for the chair and grips it, as if she needs help to stand up, as if she is about to crash to the ground at any moment.

But she remains standing and simply nods.

In the hum and trill of the party, her mother seems quiet, as if a piece of her isn’t there. She smiles and laughs and sings. Dishes up ice cream and pops balloons, but there’s a strange greyness in her eyes. A dullness that speaks of other things. Of the things that are really on her mind.

But none of her friends notice, because why should they. The day was simply about fun and presents and laughter. And that was how it had been.

Katie wasn’t mentioned, and no-one thought to miss her.

And it was okay.

But later that evening, when the house was quiet, she called out to her parents to join her.

On the table she’d lain out the four plates, a slice of cake on each and hey sat and ate and thought of Katie then.

But no-one sang.

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